ANALYSIS: Pope and Change: What Pope Francis can learn from President Obama

(RNS) He came into office riding a wave of good will and bringing a message of hope and change. He was honored by his traditional adversaries and awarded global accolades just months after taking charge amid a crisis of historic scope.
Left, Pope Francis passes a crucifix as he walks down steps during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 4. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic New Service. Right, President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Left, Pope Francis passes a crucifix as he walks down steps during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 4. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic New Service. Right, President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


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Sound familiar? Maybe the president (Obama) has a few tips for the pope (Francis). Francis’ trajectory from near anonymity to the heights of power is remarkably similar to Obama’s. But can the pontiff avoid the pitfalls that have dogged the president? Obama’s current status could certainly be read as a cautionary tale, with his approval ratings mired in the low 40s after remaining persistently strong — though they never approached the stratospheric 92 percent favorability that Francis currently enjoys. Yet the higher you fly, the farther you fall, and the more painful the landing. “The heady romance between Pope Francis and the world is still in its honeymoon period,” University of Notre Dame’s Candida Moss warned in a Politico essay this week after the pontiff was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” True, the magazine’s encomium is not quite the Nobel Peace Prize, which Obama won in 2009 at the same point in his fledgling administration. (The president was also Time’s “Person of the Year” in both 2008 and 2012.) But some of the reactions to it were similar: too much, too soon, too little substance. “We ooh and ah at the celebrity nature of the Francis papacy in much the same way the world went gaga over Princess Diana,” blogger Rick Moran wrote at the American Thinker. “She, too, was largely about symbolism, but in the end, she accomplished very little of substance. She brought comfort to the afflicted and publicity to some causes, but as far as concrete change, nothing much happened. Francis is in danger of experiencing something similar.” Indeed, like Obama, Francis could be facing some of the same perils of sky-high expectations that can lead to dashed hopes, in part because the pope is facing some of the same dynamics the president has — namely, a shrinking centrist core and a polarized polity with increasingly vocal fringes. For example, as Francis has continued to criticize free-market economics, religious dogmatism, and the pomp often associated with Catholic practices, some Catholic conservatives have grown increasingly strident in their opposition. “Just as President Obama has been a disappointment for America, Pope Francis will prove a disaster for the Catholic Church,” Fox News editor Adam Shaw, a Catholic, wrote earlier this month in a widely circulated blast at the pontiff’s efforts to move beyond the church’s internal ideological battles and engage the world with a positive message. Moreover, Francis is also facing entrenched interests as he attempts to reform the Roman Curia — a chief reason the cardinals elected him last March — much as Obama faces a persistent foe in the GOP’s Tea Party faction. As one commentator put it on Twitter, Francis “may be Obama, but the Curia is the Republican House. No fundamental change is possible.” The criticisms and reservations from the Catholic left can also be sharp, and mirror the sense of disappointment and disenchantment heard from Obama’s liberal allies when he failed to change the nation as much as they wanted. “If (Pope Francis) wants to sustain Catholics’ interest and excitement, the time is fast approaching when he must deliver something tangible,” opined the liberal National Catholic Reporter in an editorial last month on expectations that Francis would begin to implement policies that reflect the sentiments of most Catholics. To be sure, Francis is the pope, not a president. He is the chief executive and legislator and jurist all in one. For all that, however, popes are not the autocrats some think they are (or should be) and Francis has to win over his own troops in order to effect the change he envisions. He will also need to appoint leaders who reflect his views — a new White House can make more appointments more quickly than a new pontificate — and he will need public approval to aid him. But will he have the time to make changes without deflating the hopes of those who are giving the church a second look after decades of scandal and crisis? Obama, at least, seems enamored of Francis, citing the pope in his speeches and saying he has been “hugely impressed with the pope’s pronouncements.” “He’s also someone who is first and foremost thinking about how to embrace people as opposed to push them away,” Obama told CNBC in October. Maybe the president was speaking out of envy as much as admiration — and maybe the Vatican should worry about the pope’s fans as much as his critics. KRE/AMB END GIBSON The post ANALYSIS: Pope and Change: What Pope Francis can learn from President Obama appeared first on Religion News Service.

3 Responses to “ANALYSIS: Pope and Change: What Pope Francis can learn from President Obama”

  1. Zappa912

    Nickbatt makes some good points. In my opinion, the President could learn much from the Pope by taking the higher moral ground. Praise people. Emphasize the goodness of people, not lower himself to the depths of his critics. Put them off their game by finding some way to complement them. Be kind. Talk about inclusion, rather than exclusion, and not about us and them. The Pope is not running for office. He is providing some very positive direction as to what we should be doing to help one another, not separate ourselves from each other. Acceptance of the differences between each other. Looking for the common good. Not judging one another but working together. Not just about us Catholics but about all people, whether devoutly religious or not, whether Catholic or not. Pope Francis is a holy man who has led by his example of helping the poor and working for social justice long before he became pope. He is not running a popularity contest. He is continuing to try to be the same person he has been for many years, but in the bright worldwide spotlight, and now as the leader of one of the major religious organizations of the world. He is a curiosity to the media because he seems too good to be true. Will he satisfy all my wishes for change within my Catholic Church? Probably not. But he has my full support because I believe he is the person we see. I see a person with a great gift of love and kindness toward all, a person of fairness with a great sense of moral and social justice toward all. Something that our world desperately needs from a leader on the world stage. Does the Pope have something to learn from President? Possibly. But I think it is really the other way around. I believe our President could learn much from the example provided by the Pope. If he follows the Pope’s humility and moral leadership and shows the Pope’s moral courage during the final three years of his Presidency, I believe our President becomes one of the great presidents in our history. Pope Francis already has demonstrated to me that he is one of the great spiritual leaders in my senior citizen lifetime. I just hope he is given many more good years of good health to continue to bring the good news and example of Jesus to our troubled world. Peace to all.

  2. nickbatt

    Can we stop with these attempts to fit Pope Francis into the American political spectrum. He’s Catholic; not conservative or socialist. “Evangelli Gaudium” is a call for reflection by Catholics. It is not the program or platform of any political party. Nor does he need to take tips from President Obama. Theirs are two very different roles having very different ends and methods to reach their ends. I can get this level of analysis from Fox or MSNBC. I don’t need it here.

  3. jules of Holy Toledo

    are we sure that David Gibson is not really a Hit Man for Fox News?
    ….the very same kind of negative spin that Fox News uses on “everything Obama”
    seems to be replicated in Gibson’s Heat Seeking Missile attacks upon Pope Francis…..Geez, get it right Gibson….Obama is trying to change America and struggling…..Pope Francis IS changing the World and……succeeding!
    So what if just below the surface….there is a budding Socialism in both of them?
    If the man Buddha was here or the man Jesus were here….more than likely they would be full blown Socialists too!

    ……observer Jules in Holy Toledo….

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